A Bright Dinosaur Discovery

For the first time, scientists have determined a small dinosaur's true colors.

Feb 12, 2010 | By Suzanne Zimbler

Picture a dinosaur. Chances are, the creature you are imagining is gray or brown or possibly green. The dinosaur in your mind probably doesn't have an orange-and-white-striped tail. But according to a team of British and Chinese scientists, at least one dinosaur actually did.

To find out a dinosaur's true colors for the first time, the scientists studied fossils of a dinosaur found in China, called Sinosauropteryx (sine-oh-sore-op-ter-iks). The small, meat-eating dinosaur lived 125 million years ago.

Just looking at its feather-covered tail, the scientists could see stripes of white and some other color. But over time, that color had faded to a dull brown.

"You'd look at it and say, 'Well, it could have been brown or blue or purple or green,' " Michael Benton, who led the study, told TFK.

Solving the Mystery

So how did Benton and his team figure out that the color was orange? They looked at the feathers through a powerful microscope. Inside, they saw tiny capsules called melanosomes.

Melanosomes contain a pigment that gives feathers—or fur or hair—their color. Differently shaped melanosomes correspond to different colors. Melanosomes with a sausage shape produce dark brown. Ball-shaped melanosomes make orange. "We only found the ball type, so we knew that the feathers were orange," says Benton.

With the mystery of Sinosauropteryx's tail colors now solved, Benton is eager to find out the colors of other dinosaurs. "We'll map out the colors over a whole dinosaur," he predicts, "so we can say, 'It had black splotches and green bits and stripes and this and that and the other.' "

As for that picture in your mind, it'll soon be lot more accurate—and colorful.